Transfrontier Africa focuses its research on both advising management decisions as well as measuring or demonstrating the effectiveness of those decisions and actions within our section of the Greater Kruger National Park.
For some time now, there has been speculation regarding the impact that the four lion prides that operate within our study area, may have on the other animals. There is fear that they may be targeting the Blue Wilderbeest (brindled gnu) and that this may cause their population numbers to drop below the threshhold for a viable population. A recognised management technique in such circumstances is to provide "feed lots" of a plentiful prey species for the lions and therefore take the pressure off the current target species. The idea mooted by the management authorities is to provide buffalo carcasses on a regular basis for the lions. The SAVANNA Project, initiated by Transfrontier Africa, has been provided with the opportunity to provide information from field research, which may substantiate or discredit this hypothesis.
It is essential to understand how lions operate and especially those in the given study area. For example, lion prides rely on the females of the pride to provide the food. Males are too busy patrolling their territories and defending them and their harem against intruders and secondary predators such as hyena. Males often form "coalitions" in order to be more successful in this regard and may kill from time to time. So, if you have a big pride with many females then they will, hypothetically, have a higher hunting success rate. This also depends on the influence of secondary predators and scavengers as well as the availability of prey and landscape (thick bush vs open plains etc.). So, if the pride is big and can hunt successfully as a result of the big hunting team (females), then they will also need to hunt prey species that are large enough to feed the whole lot, or kill frequently. Now, the prides of Balule include the Yorke Pride that is 17 animals strong. This is our biggest pride and seems to have the biggest influence with the highest number of kills to their credit.
The other thing to remember is that lions train their cubs in the art of hunting their preferred prey. So, if giraffe are on the menu, the cubs will be trained in the art of hunting giraffe and they will train their cubs, and so on. This is not to say that they will starve to death if giraffe move out of the area. They have secondary choices as well. It is a bit like going to a restaurant, during your 1 hour lunch break, and asking for your favourite dish; the waitron admits that this will take some time and you will have to wait for your tea. You have a second choice that you may be less happy with, but is still acceptable. Lions are the same. They do not often hunt unless they are hungry and therefore NEED to feed. They work in a window of time when hunting success is optimum. They are primarily crepuscular or nocturnal hunters making use of the poor light and the element of surprise. If their number 1 choice is not available, they will not sit back and say, "ok, lets try again in the morning". They move onto the next species, and so on. They are just as opportunistic as the rest of the animals that frequent the African Savannah. Having said all of that, one must also take into account how prey species move with the different seasons. It would be suicide to specialise on a species that moves out of the area during the dry winter months, and not be able to fall back on the"hamburger and chips" species.
So, we have embarked on a mission to discover which species are being targeted by which pride of lions, and when. It is also important to monitor the size of the prides and dynamics within the sex and age classes of each. It is interesting to note that the other game census work that we are conducting shows a small increase in the numbers of Blue Wilderbeest for the study area and therefore, we are a bit sceptical about the hypothesis being bantered about from the start. Our work has shown that the Yorke Pride is doing most of the killing, with two displaced males from the Kajima Pride being responsible for the odd warthog now and again. Preliminary results (and this is a long term study) show that the chosen prey in winter is by far giraffe. Warthogs have been targeted by the smaller prides and splinters of the Yorke Pride. Female and young buffalo have also been taken and we had our first wilderbeest kill two days ago!In order to gather this information we still conduct our routine gamedrives on the standardised routes and should a lion kill be reported by any of the lodges and rangers, we will respond. Furthermore, we monitor the radio and log any reports of kills made outside of this time. Volunteers are now lucky to observe lions on kills, from the back of our open Land Rovers. The information is relayed over the dedicated "game drive channel" and captured on our spreadsheets. In the space of 10 days, we have a sample of 10 kills already!!! It will be fascinating to see how the trends develop and we arequite excited to be involved in this survey.